“It’s true. I’m around kids all day—what do you expect?” I’m about to remind her that it seems like she’s always been this way when she continues, “What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a physical therapist.” I look around the yard to see whether my business partner, Zach, has shown up yet, but I don’t see a flash of orange hair anywhere. “My partner and I opened our practice about a year ago, downtown.”
Hazel groans in jealousy. “You get to talk about cores all day, and working things nice and deep. I would never get any actual work done.”
“I mean, I occasionally get to tell people to take their pants off, but it’s rarely the people you want to see naked from the waist down.”
She gives me a thoughtful frown. “I sometimes wonder what the world would be like if clothes were never invented.”
“I literally never wonder that.”
Hazel rolls on without pause. “Like if we were just naked all the time, what things would have been developed differently?”
I take a sip of my water. “We probably wouldn’t ride horses.”
“Or we’d just have calluses in weird places.” She taps her lips with her index finger. “Bike seats would be different.”
“Women probably wouldn’t shave their labia.”
A jarring physical reaction cracks through me. “Hazel, that is a terrible word.”
“What? We actually don’t have hair inside our vaginas.” I stifle another shudder and she levels me with the fiery stare of a woman scorned. “Besides, no one winces at the word ‘scrotum.’ ”
“I absolutely wince at ‘scrotum.’ And ‘glans.’ ”
“Glaaaans,” she says, elongating the word. “Terrible.”
I stare at her for a few quiet seconds. Her shoulders are bare, and there’s a single freckle on her left one. Her collarbones are defined, arms sculpted like she exercises. I get a flash of a mental image of Hazel using watermelons as weights. “I feel like you’re making me drunk just by speaking.” I peer into her glass. “Like some kind of osmosis is happening.”
“I think we’re going to be best friends.” At my bewildered silence, she reaches up and ruffles my hair. “I live in Portland, you live in Portland. You have a girlfriend and I have a huge assortment of Netflix series backlogged. We both hate the word ‘glans.’ I know and love your sister. She loves me. This is the perfect setup for boy-girl bestship: I’ve already been unbearable near you, which makes it impossible to scare you away.”
Quickly swallowing a sip of water, I protest, “I’m afraid you’re going to try.”
She seems to ignore this. “I think you think I’m fun.”
“Fun in the way that clowns are fun.”
Hazel looks up at me, eyes on fire with excitement. “I seriously thought I was the only person alive who loves clowns!”
I can’t hold in my laugh. “I’m kidding. Clowns are terrifying. I won’t even walk too close to the storm drain in front of my house.”
“Well.” She threads her arm through mine, leading me closer to the heart of the party. When she leans in to whisper, my stomach drops somewhere around my navel, the way it does at the first lurch of a roller coaster. “We have nowhere to go but up.”
Hazel sidles us up to a pair of guys standing near the built-in grill—John and Yuri, two of my sister’s (and now Hazel’s) colleagues. Their conversation halts as we approach, and Hazel holds out a firm hand.
“I’m Hazel. This is Josh.”
The three of us regard her with faint amusement. I’ve known them both for years.
“We go way back,” John says, tilting his head to me, but he shakes her hand, and I watch her methodically take in his shoulder-length dreads, mustache, beret, and T-shirt that reads SCIENCE DOESN’T CARE WHAT YOU BELIEVE. I hold my breath, wondering what Hazel is going to do with him because, as a white dude with dreadlocks, John has made it pretty easy for her, but she just turns to Yuri, smiling and shaking his hand.
“John and Yuri work with Em,” I tell her. I use my bottle to point to John. “As you may have guessed, he teaches science to the upper grades. Yuri is music and theater. Hazel is the new third grade teacher.”
They offer congratulations and Hazel curtsies. “Do third graders get music?” she asks Yuri.
He nods. “Kindergarten through second is vocal only. In third they begin a string instrument. Violin, viola, or cello.”
“Can I learn, too?” Her eyebrows slowly rise. “Like, sit in on the class?”
John and Yuri smile at Hazel in the bemused way that says, Is she fucking serious? I imagine most elementary school teachers nap, eat, or cry when they have a free period.
Hazel does a little dance and mimes playing a cello. “I’ve always wanted to be the next Yo-Yo Ma.”
“I … guess so?” Yuri says, disarmed by the power of Hazel Bradford’s cartoon giggle and bewitching honesty. I turn and look at her, worrying about what Yuri has just gotten himself into. But when he checks out her chest, he doesn’t seem worried at all.
“Yo-Yo Ma began performing when he was four and a half,” I tell her.
“I’d better get cracking, then. Don’t let me down, Yuri.”
He laughs and asks her where she’s from. Half listening to her answer—only child, born in Eugene, raised by an artist mother and engineer father, Lewis & Clark for college—I pull out my phone and check the latest texts from Tabby, each of them sent about five minutes apart. I hate that I get a tiny bit of pleasure knowing that she kept checking her phone.
I blow out a controlled breath, and type,
“She said you were going to be best friends?” My sister frowns at a shirt and drops it back on the pile at Nordstrom Rack. “I’m her best friend.”
“It’s what she said.” A laugh rises in my chest but doesn’t make its way out when I remember Hazel accepting her fourth margarita from Dave and asking me to staple her shirt to her waistband. “She’s a trip.”
“She’s made me weird,” Em says. “It’ll happen to you, too.”
I think I know exactly what Em means, but seeing the effect Hazel has had on my sister—making her more fun-loving, giving her social confidence that only now, in hindsight, can I really attribute to Hazel—I don’t consider this oddness a bad thing. And Hazel is so unlike Tabby and Zach—so unlike everyone, really, but maybe the polar opposite of my girlfriend and best friend, who both tend to be quiet and observant—that I think it might be fun to have her around. Like keeping interesting beer in the fridge that you’re always surprised and pleased to find there.
Is that a terrible metaphor? I glance at my sister and mentally calculate the amount of physical damage she could inflict with the hanger she’s holding.
“She’s half ‘hot exasperating mess’ and half ‘color in a monotone landscape.’ ” Em pulls the shirt from the hanger and hands it to me. I fold it over my arm, letting her—as usual—pick my clothes. “I can’t believe Tabby isn’t here, again.”
I don’t bite. It’s the third time she’s tried to bait me into a conversation about my girlfriend.
“Doesn’t she know that relationships take work?”
Sliding my gaze over to her, I remind her, “She has a deadline, Em.”
“Does she really, though?” Her voice is high and tight and she takes out her frustration on a pair of shorts she throws back down on the stack in front of her. “Doesn’t this evasion of hers feel like … like …”
I prepare for this with a deep breath, hoping my sister doesn’t go there.
“Like she’s cheating?” she asks.
And she went there.
“Emily,” I begin calmly, “when Dave is working crazy hours at the school, and you come over and eat dinner at my place and vent about how you haven’t seen him in days, do I tell you, ‘Well, maybe he’s got someone on the side’?”